5th Edition D&D Is in Development — Should We Care?

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On Monday, Wizards of the Coast announced that work is already under way on the 5th edition of Dungeons & Dragons. An article in the New York Times by GeekDad contributor Ethan Gilsdorf details some of the recent history and philosophy that underlies the new development, while a Legends & Lore article by Mike Mearls reveals that part of the process will involve an open play-testing, with rules, classes, monsters and other material being revealed through the D&D website for playtesters to try at their own tables and provide feedback, thereby shaping the development of the game.

I think it’s safe to say that this announcement doesn’t come as a major surprise to anyone following the difficulties the Dungeons & Dragons game has experienced as of late. An excellent series of articles (past, present, & future) on The Escapist details several of these.

Not the least of these issues is the fact that Paizo Publishing’s Pathfinder RPG, built on the Open Gaming License (OGL) of D&D 3.5, is now the number-one selling RPG for the past two quarters.

Paizo has also recently introduced plastic miniatures for the Pathfinder RPG, as well as a new Beginners Box set for its game, and has also recently announced that both a MMORPG and comic book series are now in development.

Add to that the fact that recent articles on the D&D website have hinted at ideas that might form the foundation of a new edition and that Wizards has recently rehired Monte Cook, well known for his role in developing the 3rd edition of D&D, and it seemed pretty clear that a something new was in the works. In fact, speculation that a new edition would be announced at GenCon 2011 was very high after Wizards had announced the cancellation of several highly anticipated 4th Edition products (a game based in Ravenloft, e.g.). Then there was the indication that something big was going to be announced at GenCon but was withdrawn at the last moment. Hence, it’s hard to be surprised or, at least for me personally, excited about today’s announcement.

Photo: Wizards of the Coast

As for the 4th edition of D&D, it’s hard to say what its lasting legacy will be. On the positive side, it introduced a new way to play the game, adding streamlined play, improved ease of dungeonmaster preparation, and character classes that were complementary and balanced. Many, including Mearls himself, have suggested that they may have been too well-balanced. Many players felt these changes were a breath of fresh air and ingenuity.

On the other hand, the introduction of 4E caused a major schism in the D&D player base and publishing world alike, one that ultimately lead to the rise of the Pathfinder RPG and a fragmentation of D&D’s player base. Go to any game store or basement table playing D&D and you will likely discover groups playing a D&D retroclone, D&D 3.5, the Pathfinder RPG or 4E. While you will find some groups that overlap, for the most part these groups are mutually exclusive.

So what was once one relatively small player base, at least compared to Magic: the Gathering‘s or World of Warcraft‘s, has now split into four groups who (as a quick look at most forums or blogs will reveal) do not get along. The disagreements, rooted in both philosophical and economic differences, have spawned the term “edition wars.”

It’s hard not to predict that the announcement of 5th Edition D&D is going to have the same effect, only this time splitting an already reduced 4E player base into 4E and 5E camps — especially considering that the current edition, which was released in June of 2008, has had such a short life. It is also difficult for me to expect much of a change when it comes to a new edition because most of my issues with the current edition are not due to the system itself but the lack of support and consistent vision from Wizards of the Coast about the game.

For the past few years, starting with the very announcement of 4E and the Virtual Tabletop debacle, Wizards has been very poor at communicating honestly and openly with its fan base and has put out a string of very sub-par or poorly supported products, many of which saw errata almost immediately after their release. The inclusion of new “features,” such as the Fortune Card — which, regardless of what they claim, was meant to be collected since issuing cards in randomized packs with common/uncommon/rare designations by definition makes them collectible — and putting most of the online support material behind a paywall, also turned off many potential players. Confusing titles and formats (for example, the adoption of the digest-size books for the Essentials line and then subsequent abandonment of that format) didn’t help the matter.

In addition, Wizards of the Coast has had a great deal of difficulty delivering on what they have promised. The online software tools have regularly gone months without updates, the online “magazines” have been up and down in quality. It’s unclear what will become of the much anticipated VTT, which is still in beta testing after years of delay, now that a new edition is underway. It’s not hard to imagine that the 4E fans who have been waiting more than three years to play their favorite version of D&D online are out of time and thus out of luck.

Therefore, I view this announcement with a great deal of skepticism. However, I also cannot help but hope that perhaps the D&D developers have truly reflected on what went wrong and right with the last edition of the game, and are going to make a serious effort to rectify all of the shortcomings with the upcoming edition. Where they need to start is with rebuilding the bond of trust with their fans, through open communication and an honest effort to make a great, open-sourced game, rather than one built strictly based on corporate profit margins. If they were to do that, I think it would be an immense step in the right direction and perhaps begin to bring all of the disparate “D&D” players back into the fold.

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